Ps & Qs

This murmur has been a long time coming. I have been in one of my writing muddles. It happens when I have written too much. I am fine when I edit as I go, but if I don’t I find it very hard to re-read. I look at the middle of the page and see the words spreading out north, south, east and west. When I am writing, I need a particular kind of focus, a sort of policing force, that blanks down the options and steers me along in a specific direction. I don’t have any great preference for one paw over another; put a pen in each and I will write from the middle and proceed to the edges, one paw’s writing mirroring the other’s. When I want to write something that makes sense to others I need a run up to it, a sort of nudge that starts me on the left and propels me to the right.

This ambimindedness can make things tricky, but sometimes it can be quite useful. When one paw is sore, for instance, I can hand the baton to the other. And there was something else that I learned the day after the Save Our Souls Storm.

You may have begun to wonder what became of the oilskin package that Uncle Ratty rescued (along with Chelsea Rat) and brought back to Great Uncle Mole’s burrow.

We were a bedraggled trio when we got back to the burrow. It was well after midnight but Uncle Ratty insisted on hot baths and cocoa before we retired. So it wasn’t until the next morning, when I woke up in the little room that was always mine, that I was truly assailed with the sense of being both embraced and unshackled. Something happened to my little moleheart every time I came to stay with Great Uncle Mole. It lurched a little when I remembered that he was not there, but that did not stop me from my rather exuberant celebration.

When Uncle Ratty tapped on the door frame I was no longer jumping on my bed, but I was standing in front of the tarnished bar mirror whistling the Marseillaise, paw on heart,

‘You’ll need to twiddle it down a bit, young Moley. Poor old Chatters is nervous as a kitten.’
At least he didn’t tell me to mind my Ps & Qs (whatever they were – Pleases and ThanQs, I supposed), which is what Great Uncle Mole would have done in his growly voice.

‘Chatters?’

‘Seems he prefers it. School name. Doesn’t like being a headline.’

Chatters. I don’t think I ‘d ever met anyone less chatty than the The Chelsea Rat. Perhaps it was his chattering teeth.

If it hadn’t still been pelting with rain, I would have left the burrow and gone for an explore after breakfast, but it was and I found myself stuck in the parlour where Chatters was making a poor show of sitting in Great Uncle Mole’s chair. He hadn’t the right girth or solidity. Great Uncle Ratty had lit a fire and brought in a pot of tea and shortbread even though we’d barely finished our toast and marmalade in the kitchen. We sat silently around the hearth, Uncle Ratty in his chair, me between them on the Egyptian pouffe. The rain hammered on the roof and every time there was a clap of thunder, Chatters’ dead eyes jerked open and he drummed his claws on the arm of the chair in agitation. Uncle Ratty tried to take his mind of it by bringing out a game of Ludo. God knows why. Then he decided music might do the trick and put Ma Rainey on the gramophone to cheer him up. Chatters became even more agitated and so he tried Schubert instead.

I began to envision my whole holiday incarcerated in this gloomy silence.

‘I know’, said Uncle Ratty, and disappeared.

He came back in staggering with the oilskin parcel and with a thunk laid it down on the table next to Chatters.

‘The nipper would like to know what this is.’

He’ll say no, I thought, if he says anything at all. But Uncle Ratty was not asking permission.

‘So I brought it in here.’ He began unfolding the corners.

‘Treasure’, he said to me.

I waited to be dazzled by diamonds and gold florins but when Uncle Ratty removed the oilskin my first impression was of unbroken greyness. Looking more closely I could identify a large wooden tray with lots of subdivisions, each filled with letters on blocks. There were other bits and pieces. I was intrigued. But treasure seemed to be over-egging the pudding.

Chatters’ paw reached out tentatively. Uncle Ratty handed him what looked like a small, shallow, lidless box. ‘Composing stick’, he said as if he were handing an instrument to a surgeon, ‘Galley’ he said, passing over a wooden try about the size of a Famous Five book.
A curious transformation came over Chatters. I could almost see his blood circulating; he became all animation, deftly picking out types and slotting them away into composing stick.

‘If the type does not make it treasure in your eyes, young Moley, the tale of it might at least stir your romantic heart.’ He settled into a tale-telling position which meant filling and lighting his pipe with agonising slowness. I fidgeted on the pouffe.

‘Shall I tell it, Chatters?’ As if there had been any question. A nod from the typesetter.

‘We already know that 7th January 1928 marked the beginning of the Big Thaw’, he began. ‘That was only the beginning. Chatters and his family were evacuated to Wales . The poor blighters had precious little to begin with but now they were homeless as well. After a week or two, when the flood levels receded, Chatters and his Papa went back to London to examine the ruins. All that was left intact was the larder and the bolthole into the Apothecary Gardens, the rest was a mass of sludge, fallen-in passageways, and a whole lot of flotsam brought in by the flood.’ Somehow yesterday and 1928 merged themselves in my mind. I forgot that the family had been poor and imagined all those splendid rooms I’d walked through in Chatters’ burrow being sucked into the Thames, their contents sinking or floating out to sea.

‘They painstakingly went through the debris to see if anything could be rescued.’

‘Two chairs, a bedstead, a jam cauldron and some forks’. The voice was still high, but not as querulous as last night. There was no break in the typesetting.

‘And in what had once been the parental sleeping chamber…’, Uncle Ratty paused for effect. ‘A pile of what they thought must be coal, although it was rather angular. They put it aside because Chatters’ Papa knew he could sell it to a chap who owned a pub. But first they had to do what they could to make some liveable space. Some chums, and one or two relations pitched in’

‘Ratty was one of them’, Chatters squeaked from Great Uncle Mole’s chair.

‘It wasn’t until the family had squeezed back into the burrow and Chatters’ Mama was washing the mud off everything, that they discovered the coal was not coal at all but type. Being of a practical bent and thinking of the next meal, his Papa was all for melting it down. But to his spouse, poet and visionary, the heavy grey pile presented a glimmer hope. And when she examined the font of the typeface more carefully she felt her heart flutter in a way that, were she not the mother of seven nippers, she might have identified as falling in love.’

I glanced over at Chatters. His paws were constantly on the move between the tray and the stick. The sorts clicked together like little dominoes as they were put into place. I was mesmerised. Uncle Ratty’s tale still wafted in through my ears but I could not take my eyes off Chatters.

‘Chatters’ Papa was reluctant to leave the canals for this pie in the sky scheme, but when a chat with a lock-keeper led to a printing press that had belonged to a defunct missionary society and going dirt cheap, he put faith in Providence and his energy into learning the trade. It took her years, but under the firm paw of Chatter’s Mama the Apothecary Garden Press came into being. It was a bespoke press. The font on the sorts was not of a common or garden type and lent itself to special commissions. She exploited her inside knowledge of the Tate mercilessly for patrons, and inveigled her offspring into running errands.’

Each time Chatters completed three rows on his composing stick he slid the sorts onto the galley. Now it was full.

‘Allons enfants de la Patrie
Le jour de gloire est arrivé !’ I sang.

Uncle Ratty gave me a stern look, not because I had so rudely interrupted him but, I was sure, because he believed my singing would undo all his careful work and send Chatters into a helpless bundle of nerves again. I stopped. But it wasn’t rebelliousness that had provoked me into song, it was the words I was reading on Chatters’ galley.

‘I heard young Moley singing this morning. It emboldens the heart whatever one might think of the politics. But,’ the voice from Great Uncle Mole’s chair squeaked, ‘What is more to the point, this nipper has a printer’s eye.’

I don’t think I had noticed that I was reading upside down and back to front, but suddenly all my muddles, or mubbles, or wnpples, or wnqqles or selbbum, selddum, sleqqnw or sleppnw had been revealed as having a name, a name to be proud of: A Printer’s Eye.

And the ‘Ps & Qs’ that were to be minded and which, when spoken to me, always appeared to be capitalised, had nothing to do with Pleases and ThanQs but with the difficulties faced by printers when trying to differentiate between ‘p’s and ‘q’s and ‘b’s and ‘d’s.

Chatters’ La Marseillaise hangs on my burrow wall to this day.

And if you are curious to read about the possible source of the type that was washed into that Chelsea Embankment burrow in January 1928 you can find the story here.

Mole is having a sabbatical and will be unplugged this week. the next murmur will appear on Friday 9th September.

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The Flood

It has been a strange, warm, wet winter, the wettest winter on record here on this island. We have had floods, homes lost, over a hundred bridges washed away, and here, in the centre of the city where there was once a department store, then a fire, then a building site we now have a lake. Diggers lie semi-submerged, their cabins beneath its surface, their articulated arms and shovels above like so many Loch Ness Monsters. At home in my burrow I watch Niagara cascading from the leaf-clogged gutter, and am reminded of what Uncle Ratty and I later referred to as the Save Our Souls Storm.

It was a September and I don’t know why I wasn’t at school, but I can remember the train journey and the beating of my little heart as we began to enter molekin country. I always badgered my way into the same compartment. Any other creature already there, or joining us later, was an interloper as far as I was concerned. And so I took not the blindest piece of notice of the old biddy who took exception when I wrenched the window open and stuck my snout out. My Mama, had she been there, would have called it smut-gathering, but for me sniffing the air, feeling the rush of wind on my pelt, even the grit in my eyes, were part of an almost sacred ritual.

I didn’t wrench the window open at any old time but during the few moments between pulling out of the last tunnel and rounding the bend. My snout had to be out of that window so that, through my streaming eyes, I would be able to witness our entrance into the station and, most especially, to see the familiar figures of Great Uncle Mole and Uncle Ratty. They were always there, side by side, on the same section of the platform between the potted geraniums and the Left Luggage. Always. I may have been the subject of my parent’s peripatetic life, but Great Uncle Mole and Uncle Ratty were constants.

This time, though, I could only make out one figure. The leaner shape of Uncle Ratty. Great Uncle Mole wasn’t there. I felt a lurch in my moletum, a sudden presentiment that their burrow, which was such a sanctuary to me, might not always be there.

But as we drew in, and the train screeched to a halt positioning my carriage opposite the Left Luggage exactly as I had calculated, I could see that Uncle Ratty’s good cheer was undiminished.

Great Uncle Mole, he explained, had been called out of retirement for some emergency consultations in London, and would be away for the best part of the week. Now that my mind was eased and I could begin to breathe normally again, I began to relish the prospect of a week with Uncle Ratty. We could sing raucous sea shanties in the passageways, adventure out as the fancy took us and be beastly careless about the time we got home. There would be no-one to tut-tut Uncle Ratty when his stories veered wildly from the truth or to press books like Investigations into Rigid Frame Bridges, volume III, into my paws when what I was yearning for were the Famous Five. I loved Great Uncle Mole dearly, but he did rather have his own way of doing things.

But the experiment was never to take place. When we got back to the burrow there was a telegramme on the doormat. Please rescue stop larder episode all over again stop cannot bear it stop. Thirteen words precisely. Before I had even put down my case, we were heading off to to catch another train. I was fermenting with questions but Uncle Ratty was so taken up with consulting his Bradshaws, hustling us to the station, buying sandwiches, procuring tickets and locating seats, that I had to put up with them growling about in my stomach. But once we were on the 2.32 London bound train I knew I had him trapped for at least three quarters of an hour.

And so, while heavy drops began to hit the carriage window, he began telling me about his cousin, The Chelsea Rat, so named by the Evening Star in 1928, and stuck with it ever since, poor blighter. ‘Why was he in the paper?’ I piped in, unable to contain myself even though I knew Uncle Ratty would tell me in his own time. ‘And what about the larder?’

A crack of thunder all but drowned out my last question and the lights in the carriage flickered.

‘Poor old Chelsea’, said Uncle Ratty peering out, not that there was much to be seen; the window was awash. The carriage had suddenly turned chilly.

The Chelsea Rat lived on the Thames not very far from Albert Bridge, Uncle Ratty said as he fished a disreputable jumper out of his bag and tossed it over to me.

It had been a veritable water-rat metropolis before that wretched embankment was built.

I was glad Great Uncle Mole wasn’t there to hear the word ’embankment’. We would never have heard the end of it. As it was, I thought Uncle Ratty was straying from the story, or at least from the questions that still hung in the air.

There’d been protests, he went on, but to no avail. The dredgers came in, a fascination to the nippers but a bane to their parents; burrows cracked and caved in. The great exodus began. Then the foundations were sunk and stone walls laid, blocking all the burrow entrances. Only a few stalwart families stayed on. Chelsea Rat’s family was one of them, his grandfather to be precise.

‘His Grandfather‘, I squeaked. ‘I want to know about Chelsea Rat!’

His Grandfather, Uncle Ratty continued, was a river-rat. He made quite a bit out of removals during the exodus, but after that trade went into a terrible slump and the family became penniless.

‘Chelsea Rat’, I said, pouting and crossing my front paws. If we didn’t get on with it we’d arrive at Paddington and I’d be none the wiser.

The long and the short of it, Uncle Ratty conceded, is that Chelsea Rat’s Papa had to take work on the canals in the north, and his Mama, who was the a poet at heart, worked as a char at at the Tate Gallery just up river; – which meant that on the night of the Big Thaw, the 7th of January in that cruel winter of 1928, Chelsea Rat, who was the eldest, was at home in charge of his seven siblings. And it was that night that the embankment collapsed. Chelsea Rat felt the ground give way, the walls collapse, the ceilings fall in. He herded his siblings into the highest, most inland chamber in the burrow, the larder, and waited for his Mama to come home. Normally, she would have been home well before midnight, but that night she had been corralled into rescuing the Turner drawings in the Tate basement. Chelsea Rat thought she must have drowned. The eight little nippers were discovered by rescuers the following morning. They were squashed together like sardines, no room even to sit down. The burrow, apart from the larder, had all but disappeared.

My moletum lurched as it had that morning when Great Uncle Mole was not standing on the platform, a horrible presentiment of impermanency.

The storm was positively biblical by the time we reached London and I can’t tell you the state we were in after we had trekked south to the Thames and were approaching the Apothecaries’ Garden where the original bolt hole of Chelsea Rat’s burrow was to be found. No water entrance existed now. Chelsea Rat was spooked by the merest drop of rain. We found the poor ancient rat quaking in the larder where he had taken refuge all those decades before.

The burrow I had imagined after Uncle Ratty’s tale, was a larder plus a few decrepit chambers propped up with stays, wallpaper water-stained and peeling; but it was a grand and quite extensive place, and even had its own library. Uncle Ratty managed to coax Chelsea Rat into the kitchen, brew him some oxo with a heavy dose of something from a flask; and we went to investigate. I have to say I was not feeling that brave. Uncle Ratty told me how far inland we were, how unlikely another flood was. He spoke with little conviction. We spent several hours moving books and paintings and even some furniture to the highest chambers. I moaned that my paws were tired and he reminded me that Chelsea Rat’s Mama had moved paintings all night during the floods of 1928. Still he sent me to the kitchen to sit with Chelsea Rat.

It felt like hours before either of us said anything. We sat, two fearful creatures, staring at the table. Then Chelsea Rat whispered hoarsely, ‘The press. Tell him to get the press.’ Did he mean the Evening Star, was he somehow confusing this flood with the last? I went to get Uncle Ratty.

I found him staggering up the stairs with a large oilskin-wrapped bundle; he looked exhausted. I felt horribly guilty about having deserted him. I gave him Chelsea Rat’s message.

‘Got it’, he wheezed.

Back in the kitchen the flask had done its stuff, emboldened Chelsea Rat to speech ‘The press. It must be made safe.’ Uncle Ratty said we could take it to Mole’s; that Mole’s burrow was the equivalent of a Mount Ararat as far as being above the flood level went. That, in fact, Chelsea Rat should come with us, just in case.

It was late that night that we got home. I was never, ever so pleased to be there as I was then. But try as I might I could not help imagining water filling the tunnels. I yearned for the return of Great Uncle Mole who, for all his fussing about, made the burrow a home, one that you could believe in forever.

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Kachelofen

It is very green on this island just now. Never, since recording began, has there been a soggier month than the one just past. The sun is now out; the earth is soft and delicious, and my paws have been itching to delve into it.

I have inherited the pleasure of winter gardening from Great Uncle Mole, although I suspect it was the afterwards he enjoyed most: coming indoors, warming himself by the open fire, and drinking steaming mulled apple juice from the Emmenthaler bowls some chum had made for him. And for me it is a somewhat dilettante affair, the odd onion weed before giving my paws a rest.

But today the odd onion weed yields more than its bulb. Entangled in its roots is a pin, rusty and misshapen, – still I can make out the shape of a star. It couldn’t be, could it?

When was it? The late 1950s? Early ’60s perhaps. We had a rare visitation from Great Uncle Mole. He was on his way to some conference to do with the St Gotthard tunnel and had arranged to spend a week with us in our burrow near Bern.

Great Uncle Mole away from his home burrow was a sorry sight. There was a restlessness about him as if he had somehow lost his slippers. And while my Mama and Papa had done all they could to make him comfortable, they had provided him with neither a fireside (our burrow was centrally heated) nor an engineering problem.

But while he was with us he received a letter that had been posted from Switzerland to England and then been forwarded back (or backwarded forward) by Uncle Ratty. The envelope was a mess but the postal authorities ever resourceful. It pleased Great Uncle Mole greatly and although my little mole ears were on stalks trying to eavesdrop on the adults after I had been put to bed; and although (because the words Young Moley drifted in and out of the conversation) I was driven to tiptoeing closer and closer to the parlour, try as I might I had to wait until the morning to have my curiosity quenched.

The chum who had written to Great Uncle Mole – well not written exactly but sent a diagram, was, Great Uncle Mole told us, someone he had known during the war. In what capacity he wouldn’t say; besides it was a question I’d be more interested in now than I was then. Apparently diagrams had always been their mode of communication; neither spoke the other’s language. The diagrams varied in complexity; they might be puzzlements over an Atlantic tunnel or the mechanics of a timer. This one was on the slighter side, though I didn’t realise it at the time, and certainly didn’t warrant Great Uncle Mole’s immediate presence, but it was just the excuse he needed – and a nice little problem to get his teeth into.

That very morning Great Uncle Mole and I were sitting side by side in a train carriage and nursing mugs of hot chocolate in our paws. We were bound for a village in the Emmenthal where his chum lived. It was my first professional engagement. I was to be his interpreter.

The chap we were about to visit was a Hafner, a stove-maker, Great Uncle Mole told me. Not any old stoves but Kachelofen, wonderful tiled affairs that had cunning ducts so, I gathered, that the smoke from its central woodfire was conveyed under inbuilt seats and through walls into other rooms and even sometimes a platform on which you can sleep. He went into far more detail than that. In fact he had not finished explaining when we reached our train stop.

There was no one to meet us at the station; no one knew we were coming. But the village was small and its inhabitants helpful, and soon we found ourselves approaching the large workshop that proclaimed itself to be Desmannli & Tochter AG, Hafnerei.

Just as we were about to knock Desmannli & Tochter came out of the door. Herr Desmannli was the biggest mole I’d ever seen – his Russian ancestry, Great Uncle Mole later said. He was also extremely grey but that may have been clay dust rather than age. Fräulein Desmannli was a stoutish mole of late middle age and wore overalls. There was a red star pinned to her breast pocket.

Herr Desmannli could barely contain his delight when he saw Great Uncle Mole. They pumped each others paws until they could hardly extricate them again. Fräulein Desmannli hurried them along to their Citrôen H lorry. She lodged Great Uncle Mole into the passenger seat. Herr Desmannli and I clambered into the back under the tarpaulin. Fräulein Desmannli drove, paw to the floor. The bends were dizzying, the bumps spine-defying and the racket left no room for conversation. I tried once or twice, but Herr Desmannli was too occupied lungeing after his tools as they ricocheted from one side to the other. I discovered later that he was almost stone deaf anyway.

Our destination turned out to be a sad old building on a hillside. The words Hôtel et Pension Beau-Séjour were peeling off the timberwork. It was more than neglected; it felt shunned.

Fräulein Desmannli strode forwards with the key and we traipsed into the building behind her. The ceilings dripped with loose lath and plaster. Floorboards creaked, cracked and disintegrated as we walked along them. It had a been a long time since anyone had spent a pleasant sojourn here. But Fräulein Desmannli knew her way and led us through to a maze of passages. Hours later, it seemed, we reached a pair of doors. She wrenched them open with gusto and there it was: a monstrous Kachelofen that dominated a third of the room and appeared to extend into the adjoining ones, too.

‘Aaah’, sighed Great Uncle Mole. He and Herr Desmannli disappeared into the next room to find the heart of the beast. Fräulein Desmannli was holding a clipboard and pencil in a purposeful way. A camera was slung over her shoulder. She was already examining the tilework.

‘They were going to smash this up’, she said. ‘Wanted to eradicate all trace of it. As if you could pretend it hadn’t happened.’ She beckoned me over to look at the tiles more closely. ‘The whole story’s here. The mole who painted it is still alive, just. I saw her a week or two ago. She was here, witnessed it all, and then spent fifteen years making the tiles.’

Every tile in the central section was painted with a scene. What do I remember now? Stylised maps, trains converging in Berne, crowds with banners entering a city building, four charabancs driving up a hill. They framed six tiles that held the words Zimmerwald Conference 1915. Below was a band of flags and, at the foot of the stove, scenes of devastation. The top was a mass of portraits, fifty perhaps. She pointed some out to me: Lenin, Trotsky, Alexandra Kollantai.

We were there all day: my elders photographed, calculated, drew. I kept out of their way unless called upon to hold the end of a tape measure or fetch and carry or translate. At lunch time we went to a pub but weren’t made very welcome.

I had barely heard of the Russian Revolution then, let alone an obscure socialist conference in the heart of Switzerland. And when we rattled up in the Citrôen lorry to rescue the Kachelofen it was the height of the Cold War; the locals didn’t want a bar of the infamous conference held in their midst, nor the building in which the revolutionaries had slept. In Soviet Russia Zimmerwald was often the only place in Switzerland to be marked on the map.

What did the Desmannlis do with the Kachelofen when they had dismantled it? After that day I never saw them again, and somehow I forgot to ever ask Great Uncle Mole.

And this rusty pin. Could it somehow be Comrade Desmannli’s? Did she give it to me? Could I have forgotton? Or does my own burrow hold some secret past that has eluded me?

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Timepieces

I had an early morning appointment, very early indeed; one that required me to wake up well before dawn. And because I had taken a long deep bath (part water, mostly epsom salts), I knew that once I was in bed my muscles would melt into the blankets, my internal clock would fall into a stupor and I would need a bugle to wake me on time.

The bugler did not appear, the alarm remained impervious, I snoozed on.

Later, after I had missed my appointment, I reviewed my timepieces (and my relationship with the bugler). You might ask how many timepieces a mole could possibly need, that five is excessive. But they are more than timepieces to me. When I brought them home to my burrow they ticked with the hearts of my late molekin. The ticking was not always regular. Grandmama’s fobwatch lost time, Grandpapa’s stopped when it pleased and without any regard for how far it had been wound. The carriage clock forgot what o’clock it was. And the grandfather clock so dominated my heart with its off-beat rhythm, I remembered Great Uncle Mole and stopped it.

When I was small and the grandfather clock resided in Great Uncle Mole’s burrow, I was allowed (as a very special treat) to climb onto the milk-stool, unlock the secret door in the casing and lift the lead-weight. And then I would wait. From about five minutes before the hour I’d writhe and wriggle on the stool; the anticipation was unbearable. Just before the the hour, the casing began to tremble as the weight worked the chains for striking. Without fail, my little moleheart leapt to my mouth in unison with the first stroke. The burrow walls began to vibrate, shuddering the chess-pieces off the board in the parlour. The port glasses, the Chinese ware on the plate rail and Great Uncle Mole’s clay pipe collection were, thanks to Uncle Ratty and his seafarer’s eye, firmly secured with a fine network of fishing-line and willow twigs.

Later, when Great Uncle Mole’s heart was becoming a little dodgy the clock was stilled except when it served as the first line of defence against unwanted Visitations. Alas, it had no effect against Cousin Ezekiel but it worked a treat on the personage of Luella Spitwort, a weasel who told misfortunes for a living, and once insinuated into a burrow, could not be removed – except by the earth-shaking growl of the Grandfather clock: the voice of Mephistopheles.

But as I reviewed my timepieces it was the one that wasn’t there that I thought about most. I’d taken the watch that had belonged to my dear Papa to a watchmaker who beavers away in a tiny shop in the city, and keeps me ticking. In its absence the watch took on a different kind of presence. I could remember it in my paws, its scratched glass and yellowed face and the tiny pieces of his pelt that had got caught in the spring metal band, somehow living on, all these years later.

Most of all, though, I remember it on his wrist. Time was an illusion, he was always telling me, but living in Switzerland we could not ignore clockwork. And now I am the age that he was then, I get a glimmer of how time is both elusive and unbounded. The watch that is not in front of me is at the same time here now and on my Papa’s wrist in Switzerland and on his wrist visiting my burrow in Tasmania in years past.

When he and my Mama were alive and they travelled across the world to spend time with me, they brought with them all the familiarities of my early years; they brought a sort of belongingness that I hadn’t realised I was missing. As surely as their shampoos and toothbrushes filled up the shelves in the bathroom, so their movements left trails of being throughout my burrow. Their words hovered and floated between the kitchen and bedroom and down the passageway. Their presence filled every nook and cranny.

When they departed the burrow was so empty not even the dust-motes moved. They were so very gone – and gone so very far away.

But now that they are no longer alive, are not somewhere else, these presences and the absences can coexist.

And so I have five timepieces.

None is reliable.

There’s still time to let know your favourite post and help me make a selection for the murmurs book. Please leave your choice in the comments section below.

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Elasticity

Whenever I put aside time to do my accounts there is another me that tries to wriggle its way free. It might be that I am even sitting at the desk with ledgers open, pen in paw. Perhaps just this once I don’t suddenly find myself in the kitchen filling the kettle, or making toast, but even though I am in the right place with the right equipment and pinger set, my mind begins to drift. This time my mind moseyed back to the parental burrow and my late Papa’s study.

I was sitting in his Captain’s chair and examining the binders that held his paperwork, trying to feel my way into how he might have thought, the processes he might have used. Slowly, but with increasing intensity, I sensed a tingling in my molespine; the way he had clustered his accounts, annotated, intermingled alphabetical, numerical and associative systems, and recycled files, mirrored my own in almost every particular. Before long these accounts were so familiar they felt as if they were my own. And then I foiund the reports.

At the back of a binder that, according to the crossed out titles on its spine, had contained at one time or another Medieval Poetry, Russian Grammar, and Mesmerism and now held the last three years of accounts relating to the burrow (rent, electricity, lease, repairs, telephone), my late Papa had slipped in reports from St Bernard’s Preparatory School – reports from my earliest school days, before we had been bundled about, burrow to burrow, country to country.

Of course my mind wriggled itself away from Papa’s accounts then as surely as it did from my own last week. The reports were no mere box-ticked percentage marks but small essays and I read about my small self with complete absorption. And this time, in my own burrow, I found suddenly that I was no longer sitting at my desk, but hunkered on the floor, dragging a battered attaché case from under the bed, riffling through its contents, lifting the reports out. I was looking for a half-remembered phrase:

‘Young Mole’s conception of time’, one of my teachers had written, ‘is somewhat elastic.’

Elastic, when I was a young pupil at St Bernard’s, was a very material thing. It was the band that held your socks up and stopped your circulation. I remember complaining once to Great Uncle Mole and he lent me an ancient pair made of tightly coiled steel. I can’t imagine where he’d dug them up; rubber elastic had been used for at least a hundred years as he told me himself one wet day when we were out walking.

In 1851, he’d begun. I knew the date like the back of my paw: Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition. Or The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations. Great Uncle Mole insisted on its full title and, it always seemed to me, an almost verbatim recital of the 100 000 or more exhibits and, as often as not, their precedents as well. I remember gazing enviously at the blackbirds flying overhead. The steel-coiled garters were catching on my pelt as I walked. I drew the fact to Great Uncle Mole’s attention. Queen Victoria’s elastic-sided boots were made of coils, he said. His tone suggested that if she could put up with them so could I. For a moment I thought that I had diverted him from the Great Exhibition; it would have been worth both the pinched skin and the taint of spinelessness.

But no. Queen Victoria’s footwear had set him thinking. It was true that the elastic referred to on her boots was created by coils, but that was before the Great Exhibition. At the Exhibition, or perhaps it was shortly after, elastic-sided boots were made with pieces of rubber attached to the sole and the leather. When I later saw the coil-sided boots I had to abandon my attachment to Queen Victoria in Blundstones. Of course the mention of rubber hastened Great Uncle Mole on a soliloquy about Wellingtons and Mackintoshes and the crank-driven Masticator devised by Thomas Hancock, coach-builder of Goswell Road.

All this was very much the stuff of elasticity, and now that I know that the word at its Greek roots indicates a sense of drive, of impulse or propulsion, I can see how the springs of my young self’s garters and Queen Victoria’s boots come into play. I can see something of a Tiggerish bounce in the intention of the word. I imagine it might have been Uncle Ratty’s thing when he was a nipper. But never a mole’s. Certainly not mine at St Bernard’s Preparatory School. It was not this aspect of elasticity that exercised the teacher as she drew her indigo-inked pen across the report. The elastic she was alluding to had no ping.

What it did have was plenty of give.

It was the kind of elasticity that recognised the difference between an hour of listening to Great Uncle Mole listing the 100 000 items at the Great Exhibition and an hour of listening to Uncle Ratty telling pelt-raising tales of the high seas; or between an hour of wakefulness in the middle of the night and an hour of honeyed crumpets and ginger buns on a Sunday afternoon. It was the kind of elasticity that understood that a thing took as long as it needed to, whether it was grief, or counting rice, or allowing a carrot to grow.

Or writing my murmurs

*******

Mole is currently on Sabbatical. Murmurs will return on 29th July but Mole will be in touch before then!

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End of the Line

I do sometimes find that things can get into a terrible muddle all by themselves, and they do it with such speed that there is no possible way of countering the process. But the other day, when I was trying to locate a map, the whole jolly caboodle of charts and travel books and guides cascaded onto the floor. Fate had spoken. I would at least look at this muddle, and perhaps separate it roughly into continents, before I pushed it back onto the shelf.

As you may have already gathered, it does not take much to take me off my intended course and this time it was a timetable that garnered my attention. Thomas Cook. Continental. Some forty years old or more. Before you could say Waterloo the pile was forgotten, and I was an adventurous young mole sitting on a suitcase in the corridor of an SNCF train. The corridor was thick with the smoke of Gauloises. At one end soldiers jostled each other and made lewd remarks at the other was the WC; the stench was unmistakable. It was the middle of the night, perhaps two or three a.m. A couple of fellow passengers and I pooled resources and made a picnic of salami, wine and chestnut vermicelli tarts. We discussed Jung, I seem to remember. Or was it Dickens; there were so many journeys. I to-ed and fro-ed on the night train between England and Switzerland for several years. The train was where I belonged, this inbetween space, it felt more like home than either destination.

When I read not long ago that this night train no longer existed I felt as if my burrow had been demolished. Had I been on the right continent I’d have put on my jim-jams and joined the other passengers who gathered at stations in Geneva, Madrid, Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Dortmund, Copenhagen, Odense, Hamburg, Basel and Bern in protest at the cuts to night trains being made across Europe.

Railways must be in my mole-blood: all those generations of geologists and tunnellers. I have to admit that Great Uncle Mole’s photographs of engines and enthusiasm for gauges often sent me into a stupor, but the trains themselves, the smell of soot, the squeal of tracks, they stirred my young mole-soul.

I was a very young mole indeed (and would have been asleep except I had been reading the Secret Seven under my bedclothes), when I heard Great Uncle Mole and Uncle Ratty arguing. I remember it because although they often bantered this was the first and only time I’d heard them go at it hammer and tongs. At the heart of it, so it seemed to my artless ears, was a chum of Great Uncle Mole’s, some chap he was working with at the Ministry for Transport and whose actions he was now defending with some vehemence. Words like meticulousness, integrity and logic, whose meanings defied me, were ricocheting off the walls, although it has to be said, with less passion than Uncle Ratty’s. Hadn’t the last war shown us where mechanical logic took you, Uncle Ratty wailed. Hadn’t we had enough of that? He appealed to Mole’s sense of romance, his sense of history, his empathy. Hadn’t Mole spent much of his life travelling between far-flung places, finding ways of drawing closer the four corners of the earth. Wasn’t it Mole who had designed tracks and tunnels. And how about those happy hours they’d spent in cosy railway carriages, smoking their pipes, reading, scheming and playing word-games as the countryside hurtled by?

When I visited them later that year Great Uncle Mole and Uncle Ratty had found their peace but the burrow was in upheaval. No sooner had I arrived than I was press-ganged into emptying what we called the attic (you may think an attic a strange appendage for a burrow but Great Uncle Mole had cunningly located his home at the foot of a small hill, so while most of the chambers were below the entrance, there was one very large one above it). It was no mean feat, the attic was stuffed to the gunnels and every last pin had to be carried down to the cellar where a new chamber had been added. In my less willing moments I did rather wonder whether its completion had been timed to coincide with my stay, especially when both Great Uncle Mole and Uncle Ratty refused point blank to tell me what this space was for. But at the end of our labours they took me on a surprise holiday to see Great Uncle Mole’s cousins who were scattered around Wales. We reached them by a veritable entanglement of railway lines, through hills and valleys across marshes and along the coast, and spent a good deal longer in trains and at stations than we did in the parlours of our molekin. Our sojourns at the stations had less to do with erratic timetables than Great Uncle Mole’s determination to sketch and photograph every detail and Uncle Ratty coaxing stories out of the railwaymen. But I was happy as a mole can be with the new chums I had made on the journey and the buns we got in the railway tearooms.

The next time I visited, they allowed me into the attic. I had to swear from the bottom of my mole-heart that I would tell no-one. To be honest I was none the wiser when they opened the door. There were piles of newspaper, roles of wire-netting, some lengths of wood and sheets of ply-board. Technical drawings covered almost every inch of the wall, and on these were pinned the snaps and sketches Great Uncle Mole had made in Wales.

They were building a model railway, they said or, more accurately, they were building a model of Wales and the railways we had travelled on. It was a way of remembering them because in a few years time those railway lines would no longer exist.

Those holidays I spent shredding newspapers and soaking them in water while Great Uncle Mole painstakingly marked heights and gradients and distances onto the huge low table he and Uncle Ratty had constructed. Uncle Ratty snipped wire and sang Chattanooga Choo Choo even though Great Uncle Mole thought it not quite the thing.

It was true that those railway lines gradually disappeared. All but one, that is. There was later a rumour that there had been a Whitehall mole who’d not only leaked a top secret report on line closures to the press but also secretly funded one of the lines so that it appeared more profitable and was saved from the cuts.

I did rather wonder who that mole was.

Building a model of Europe to remember the night trains is beyond me. Nor can I see myself funding a wagons-lit service. But I can hold onto my Thomas Cook Continental Timetable. It is as good as a diary of the journeys I took, and of those not taken.

Flanders & Swann On the Slow Train

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Draught Excluders

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I had been to the cellar to bring up Mathilde’s draught excluders and, incidentally The Compleat Housewife. As I mentioned then, the latter distracted me from my original purpose and I spent the afternoon on my ill-fated bread and butter pudding.

The excluders remained untouched in their folded state under my desk. But yesterday there was a further drop in temperature and I could no longer procrastinate in comfort. I was reading a newspaper when the draft caught me in the kidneys. I considered briefly wrapping the sports section round my midriff like the stallholders at the Bernese market, but then I felt the chill around my ankles, too, and began to realise a whole newspaper outfit might be required. It seemed an altogether simpler proposition to tackle the curtains.

But when I placed them on my bed and began to separate them out I discovered that one of them was a cuckoo – quilted, yes, and about the right size and shape, but not the indigo or burgundy of the others, nor the same material. It was red with a broad golden band in the middle. And in the centre of the golden band, not quilted in the usual way, but cut into the top layer of cloth and then folded in and sewn to the next layer down, was a swastika.

It was not the swastika so much as the style of sewing that caught my attention. In the afternoon my mind had been freewheeling around the idea of palimpsests, and in the way of such freewheeling somehow everything that came into my orbit was absorbed into this idea.

What triggered the initial thought was a piece of paper that had been stuck to a letter I was translating, and that was clearly covering up something already written. I realised how much more tantalising this hidden writing was than the writing that had been allowed to stand. But then it seemed to me that this was true of archaeological finds, any kind of research, layers of memory, of landscapes. Then I came across the exquisite scissorings of Myriam Dion. As a partially Swiss sort of a mole, I was raised on what was called the Schärischnitt, intricate cut-outs of rural scenes. They were not really palimpsests – just black paper, usually stuck to a white background, but sometimes hung on windows as some of Myriam Dion’s are too, allowing light to shine through and cast shadow patterns on the surfaces inside.

Dion’s medium is newspapers and her stated concern is with their ephemerality – both their content and their existence as an endangered species. In one exhibition the lacy newspapers hang like net curtains, the tiny parings lying in heaps underneath. In a way this is the opposite of a palimpsest: the images are strangely highlighted, rather than obscured, by the very act of cutting away. The time she spends with, say, a cover page depicting some major event, headlined today, forgotten by the world tomorrow but life changing to all those involved emphasises its import. Painstakingly removing the content gives the stories the gravitas they need but at the same time she has made the papers more fragile, more impermanent.

This cutting away, revealing and the enormous attention to detail seemed to share roots with the cloth I found among Mathilde’s draught excluders.

Something niggled. Uncle Ratty telling me something about the Mole family (he was always a better source than any of the Moles). An ancestor, an engineer, a widower, I think, who had headed off to Panama to advise on the canal. He had a daughter, a bit of a firebrand, inspired by Bolivar, Flora Tristan and the generations that followed. She had, so Uncle Ratty said, renounced the ties to her Papa because of what she called his odious associations with the Panamanian oligarchy and run off to San Blas to join the Kuna fight for independence.

Why did this come to mind? Where had we been? I can just remember being bent over something Uncle Ratty- dusting it off. Ah yes, a well-thumbed copy of Flora Tristan’s Peregrinations of a Pariah. I remember looking at it, opening the flyleaf, seeing the inscription to said firebrand mole from her devoted Papa. When I queried the rift between father and daughter, Uncle Ratty admitted he might have got the story a little wrong, or merged it with the story of one of his own ancestors, because now he came to think of it the Papa had returned to England with the daughter – who had not been dragged, kicking and screaming but had been granted two rooms in the parental burrow to set up a press and shop-front for the influential but short-lived journal (1926-1935) Mole Libera.

Oh Lordy, how my threads get tangled. Where were they taking me? It’s true that Myriam Dion’s delicate pieces foreground different kinds of oppression and disaster, and the plight of those trapped by them, sentiments that might well have inspired firebrand mole, but I knew there was something else. And then it came to me. It was the cloth that the Peregrinations was wrapped in. This was, I now recalled Uncle Ratty telling me, a mola of the kind worn by Kuna women: layered fabric cut into patterns that revealed a different colour depending on the depth of the cut.

And it was just such an intricate form of cutting and stitching that characterised the thin quilt I had found among Mathilde’s draft excluders. I examined it more closely. One of the narrow edges had strong binding with a cord running through it, – and clips either end. This was not a curtain, it was a flag.

It took me on a serpentine peregrination through several encyclopaedias, atlases and history books, but none yielded any information. My luck only turned when I had given up and, because I was already sitting on the floor next to my larger volumes, had begun to browse through the travel section with the vague intention of finding out where San Blas was. And suddenly there, no longer bidden, was a photograph of a bakery, its front vibrant blue, and on its side, hovering over an emerald green landscape, a red and gold flag with a swastika at its centre.

Now that I had a location pin-pointed I could dig with more confidence. In 1925 there had been a revolution in San Blas, the Kuna won independence from Panama and declared the Republic of Tule. The flag was theirs. And the trigger for revolution? Moves to westernise Kuna culture, to stop the wearing of molas.

The swastika is of course an ancient symbol, dating back well over 2000 years; its meaning: the sun or light, but more often everlasting life. It didn’t last long, the Republic – only eleven days.

But the memory of it has.

The draught excluders are still under the desk.

*Links to the artworks and images are indicated in red.

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The Unchosen

Tante Mole’s companion, Mathilde, made decisions – just like that. She held no truck with the ins and the outs of a thing, and appeared never to suffer regret once a decision had been finalised. She was a terrifying creature who still haunts me in wig and gown, casting judgement in recurrent courtroom dreams; dreams in which I am helplessly trapped in the dock. But, as Tante Mole never ceased to tell me, Mathilde’s decisions saved many lives. And yes, they may have been fast but that was because attached to a sharp mind were years of knowledge and experience.

Uncle Ratty just allowed decisions to happen – an apparently seamless transition from thought to action. It was as if there were never any dichotomy, no bicameral warring, no either or.

Great Uncle Mole could not have been more different; he was the Great Deliberator. If a decision had to be made he took a sheet of Quad Crown paper from the map cabinet and attached it to his drawing board. He would write the question to be decided in neat capitals at the top, underline it in red and then beneath it rule a vertical line down the centre. One side was entitled Pro and the other side Con. Sometimes he would just list the pros and cons, tally them up and accept what the numbers told him rather than fiddle about with qualitative detail. Sometimes he expanded his analysis with a timeline, projecting likely outcomes, one year, five years and ten years ahead.

This is all very well if a mole is contemplating moving continents, building an ark, or planning a train robbery, but the decisions I make are about scene sequences, paragraphs, sentences – occasionally just a single word. I fear putting pen to paper because once a word is written it has a presence. A sentence, paragraph or scene has even greater presence. It would be alright if I could contemplate this whole to perfection before committing it, but I can’t; so at some point I have to wrestle with changing what I have written. Changing occasionally means expanding, but much more often it involves replacing, or worse still, extinguishing, and it is I who has dominion over the words, who has to decide whether they are chosen; this mole (the one that so over-empathises with the material world that it holds its breath while washing a grape lest it drowns) that has responsibility for their fate.

Things that are not chosen continue to clamour, as I am sure I must have done as a small, wheezy foreign mole who was never chosen if ever a side or a team was selected. Mercifully, my school did not engage in sports so this did not often happen. The unchosen cast their shadows. There are more of them, than there are of those selected. They rumble just under the surface like a resentful Greek chorus.

There is of course an in-between option, when something has not yet been rejected, it just simply hasn’t been chosen, and perhaps one or other choice will just atrophy with time. It is the kind of approach that accords with the definition of politics cited by the post-war French prime minister, Henri Queuille, as the art of postponing decisions until they are no longer relevant. But prevarication weighs heavily, too; all those unmade choices clogging up the poor mole-mind.

Some say go with your immediate feeling – trust your gut, your first intuition, but I am so slow that my second thoughts turn up for dinner while my initial intuition is still wondering what it will have for breakfast.

But sometimes a decision is easier if it is thrown into the lap of the gods.

When the time came for a sibling and I to sort through the parental burrow we were overwhelmed both with a sense of intrusion and by the extent of it all: the papers, the cupboards and drawers and boxes and crates and shelves and desks and suitcases and trunks and cellars, and the piles that had accumulated in the fifty years the family had occupied the burrow. Where to begin? I picked up our late Papa’s divining rods to guide us towards a starting position. It twitched towards the parental bedroom, twitched again towards a pile covered with a large Indian embroidery. My sibling plucked the cloth away like a magician and there before us stood the biggest chocolate bunny we had ever seen. It was absurd, it was a license, it was a reward, and it gave us a place to begin.

And it reminds me now of my late Mama’s advice to toss a coin if I couldn’t decide. But that was worse than the original dilemma, having to choose between heads or tails would led me to paralysis. What if I chose the wrong one? It was only much later, long after I had left the burrow, that she pointed out that if I thought I had chosen the wrong side, it was a clear indication that the opposite decision was the right one.

Somehow I had always accepted that which ever side the coin fell sealed the fate of the decision. The idea that I could use my free will never entered my mind.

I have coins, and I still have the rods. It’s a slow process this writing when you have to rely on these instruments for every word you write.

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Dust

The other night I was awakened by a crash and a rumble, and in my rush to turn on the bedside lamp I knocked my spectacles off the trolley. I’m not sure why I woke up. Crashes and rumbles in the night are common as muck; the roof is a highway for possums. They drop from the kauri tree on to a spot just above my bedroom ceiling and then hurtle to the other side of the burrow where the wiring to my neighbour’s shed provides a useful swing onto the silver-birch. Had there been some fisticuffs as well? Was that why I woke up? I don’t know, but the long and the short of it is that having woken up I’d knocked my spectacles off their allotted spot and in spite of several minutes of groping I could not locate them again.

That is why, at some nameless hour in the middle of the night I could be found crouched on the floor, head-torch strapped on, and peering at the landscape beneath my bed. It has to be said that the torch was worse than useless in my unbespectacled state, but a coat-hanger succeeded in hooking – well quite an array of lost objects and detritus; my spectacles, too, rather enhanced by a soft furring of dust.

Something about the position I was in, the hooking, and the underbelly of the bed took me back to Great Uncle Mole’s parental burrow. Of course I hadn’t known it when he’d lived there in his youth, only as it was in mine when Pipsqueak lived there. Pipsqueak was the youngest of the brothers and had never left home; never grown up according to Great Uncle Mole who was the eldest.

As far as his attitude towards dust went, Pipsqueak might be described as the Quentin Crisp of the mole world. It is indeed hard to see a new coating of dust if the sediment already four inches thick. The dust in Pipsqueak’s burrow made a mystery of all objects and itself morphed into strange shapes that insinuated themselves into a young mole’s lungs and imagination.

Pipsqueak was quite old when I knew him, although not nearly as old as Great Uncle Mole – but he had about him a sense of child-like dreaminess. He could be found watching a snail or a raindrop or a cloud for hours on end – and the dust shapes were for him things to be wondered at, not swept away. Great Uncle Mole who regularly took round hampers, despaired of Pipsqueak and would keep our visits to half-an-hour or less and make sure we were wearing bandannas around our snouts. Their Mama, he said, was a burrow-proud mole and would have wrung her paws at the sight of the place. She had been born within tunnelling distance of what had once been the Great King’s Cross Dust Mountain that inspired Dicken’s Mutual Friend, and dust was something to be fought tooth and claw. I remember Great Uncle Mole musing once that it was a pity there wasn’t the same sort of money in dust as there had been then. Dust and ash and cinders were turned into bricks, broken crockery and oyster shells went into road-building, rags morphed into paper. The King’s Cross dust mountain was cleared to build the station and sold to Moscow for a fortune in 1848. Everything always became something else.

Sometimes it still does. Well it always does, of course, but there are times when it is done with great deliberation. The Granby Workshop makes terazzo mantlepieces from the rubble of derelict houses in a way that honours the lives of the previous inhabitants. Catherine Bertola makes carpets of dust. Paul Hazelton takes dust to craft a woman scrubbing woman scrubbing. Jim Dinglian searches out discarded bottles by the roadside and old silver-plated tea-trays. He blackens them with candle smoke and creates images by working away at the soot. James Croak sweeps up gutters in Brooklyn to build his dirt men, and Jim Bachor fills potholes with mosaics.

I had no sense of it when I was a youngster visiting Pipsqueak with Great Uncle Mole, but now it comforts me that things crumble to dust and are then brought into being again.

 

 

Links to artworks:
Granby workshop:
http://www.granbyworkshop.co.uk
Catherine Bertola:
http://www.craftscouncil.org.uk/articles/cartherin-bertola-installing-a-carpet-of-dust/
Paul Hazelton:
http://paulhazelton.com/lady-of-burmarsh/.
Jim Dinglian:
http://www.packergallery.com/dingilian/

http://www.mckenziefineart.com/exhib/Dingilian2003exhb.html
James Croak:
http://www.jamescroak.com/html/dirtman/index.html
Jim Bachor:
http://www.bachor.com/#!pothole-installations/cmwt
Great King’s Cross Dust Mountain:
http://artdaily.com/news/45957/Filthy-New-Exhibition-at-the-Wellcome-Collection-in-London-Explores-Importance-of-Dirt#.V1p-YJBkmrW

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Crumbling

Had you been an out-of-season fly on the wall on Thursday last you might have observed me sitting at the kitchen table crumbling bread. It had all begun with a foray into the cellar to unearth the winter curtains, a foray that ended with me staggering up the steps not only with Mathilde’s quilted draft excluders but also Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife.

Its leather binding is faded and brittle; the spine, what’s left of it, is torn. I remember where it sat on Great Uncle Mole’s dresser between the cracked teapot containing the housekeeping kitty and volumes V to XI of The Practical Engineer’s Handbook. It was in no better condition then, but I suppose it had already graced one kitchen or another for over two hundred years.

In spite of the broken spine the binding is tight. The pages are thick and the type so firmly impressed you could read it with the pads of your paws. It is filled with advice on how to make liquid laudanum or concoctions to aid breeding or Battalia Pie (whose ingredients would do the beard of Edward Lear’s old man proud). But what I remember it being consulted for each summer was Gooseberry Cream, and Uncle Ratty laying the carving knife across its pages to keep them open.

A torn piece of flocked wallpaper still marks the page with the Gooseberry Fool recipe, but what seduced me was Bread and Butter Pudding. And so last Thursday or thereabouts, I was sitting in my kitchen at a table that was once my Mama’s with a loaf in front of me, just I once sat with my late Mama, crumbling bread to make bread sauce. We didn’t sit at the table I now have in my kitchen. It is a kitchen table, but the kitchen in the parental burrow was so cramped, and the table so piled up with stuff, that we had to spread an oilcloth out on the walnut table in the dining room alcove to do our crumbling.

Somehow the crumbling and the wallpaper and thoughts of my late Mama began to sadden me. I was transported to a grim month I’d been farmed out to a mole so old she must have been an aunt of Great Uncle Mole’s rather than one of his many sisters. Her burrow was decrepit and ivy grew through cracks in gothic splendour. This ancient mole did not favour nippers. Mealtimes were silent and by way of avoiding contact she decreed two hour naps after lunch. The damp, mouldy mustiness made me so wheezy I couldn’t lie down. There was nothing to read, or play with, and so during those long hours I would entertain myself by tearing off samples of the layers and layers of wallpaper that had begun to peel away from the walls. Every afternoon I’d take these samples and lay them out in sequence as if I were dealing from a pack of cards. I imagined the life of each mole entrapped in this room, counting back generations as I moved from pattern to pattern.

There is something meditative about crumbling bread between you paws. The tactility and gentle motion slows time and allows the mind to wander. I had crumbed the whole loaf before I realised what I had done.

I was not supposed to crumble. I was supposed to take a pat of butter and spread it on a two penny loaf sliced very thin. I was supposed to layer those slices with scattered raisins and currants between, pour over it three pints of cream thickened with the yolks of ten eggs, scatter grated nutmeg and mix in half a pound of sugar.

Those poor eighteenth century arteries.

Perhaps it is as well that I crumbled. I can still make a pottage of sorts but can call it something else, hold back a little on the butter and cream and eggs, and bring myself into the here and now.

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